The author's reflections on the contemporary visual arts illuminate the complexity and difficulty of the arts.
Sashi Kumar’s reflections on the media as a broad category of culture are founded on his unrivalled experience and authority in the field. Starting by writing about film for The Hindu while presenting the news and making documentary films for television and advertising, he was invited by The Hindu’s then Editor G. Kasturi to become the paper’s West Asia correspondent; he later moved back to India as government-run television widened its content and started taking external productions. He then headed the new Press Trust of India TV, which did high-quality documentary work on the economy, culture, and politics domestic and international; he went to the Soviet Union as the Soviet bloc collapsed, to Sri Lanka — often — to cover a “chauvinistic, intolerant and cruel Sinhala state” and the equally ruthless and “proto-fascist” LTTE leadership, and made a global tour to create a series on universal disarmament. He has also shown considerable foresight; sensing the potential in direct satellite broadcasting (DBS), he founded the Asianet TV channel and cable company. He later created the Media Development Foundation, parent body of the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, and continues to be the Foundation’s Chairman.
This wide-ranging collection of the author’s shorter writings, first published in several periodicals including The Hindu and Frontline, spans the period from 1979 to 2014 and covers some of the most urgent issues facing the mass media, which constitute an essential and always contested element of the democratic public space. The reader can start or stop at any point as themes are developed and modulated, give way to others, and are then picked up again, with something new added each time, from the political and legal through to the aesthetic, sometimes via high but accessible cultural and political theory.
Sashi Kumar’s knowledge of the commercial and legal issues shows in his salutary demonstration of how political and market pressures shape the media; starting with the MIT Media Lab concept of convergence, whereby all forms of the media coalesce into a “single electronic delivery screen”, he outlines the rush of mergers at the start of the millennium which now mean that nine mainly United States-based transnational corporations, from AOL-Time Warner to Viacom, control the global media market. Even the idea of a market has almost disappeared, as many of the conglomerates concerned own shares in one another and have overlapping boards of directors.
In this oligopoly, the volume of hypercommercialised content — the author cites Robert McChesney — limits the ability of Americans to act as informed citizens; the U.S. government, which dominates the World Trade Organization and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), has become something like a global ministry of information, as ICANN has effectively supplanted the International Telecommunications Union. As for India, the author firmly rejects press regulation, but he is equally firm about the consequences of the Indian government’s failure to address the rapid expansion in broadcasting until very recently.
In India, technological changes which overwhelmed local cable operators led to the effective hijacking of the technical media, whether cable or satellite, by monopolies straddling print, broadcasting, and cybermedia. Inertia on the part of the Central government has meant that cross-media ownership is unrestricted, and the open partisanship or party ownership of television channels — “glib and aggressive mouthpieces” for parties - has brought about not localisation but severe concentrations of ownership, often backed by political, money, and muscle power; inevitably, entry fees for new stations are prohibitive. The freedom of the press in India is, furthermore, not a fundamental right but one derived from Article 19 of the Constitution, through a 1995 Supreme Court ruling that the airwaves are public. That now looks like a dead letter; the belated governmental recognition of the situation has resulted only in a consultation paper by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) which does not investigate whether or not the colossal profits made by a few operators have any public benefit. Furthermore, TRAI entrenches high entry fees in what the author calls yet another example of how the Indian state legitimises a fait accompli. The state protects a private cartel and, as in the U.S., private property masquerades as public space. Dumbing-down continues; TV discussion of major issues consists of endlessly familiar talking heads spouting - shouting – opinion devoid of evidence or argument, and the channels chase ratings which their owners themselves often try to rig.
Sashi Kumar finds potential improvement in technology like direct-to-home broadcasting (DTH), as some DTH customers may want more serious content than others; that, however, will depend on Indian customers’ willingness to pay for content which could unsettle what Amitav Ghosh has called a culture of monumental inwardness. There may be some consolation in that there is no demonstrated connection between TV exposure and political parties’ electoral success. That shows how the media cannot control its cultural and political settings, despite enormous commercial pressures on it to do so. We are never simply passive receptors of content, even if thinkers like Guy Debord, writing in the 1960s, contended that everything would become spectacle, a development only too obvious in the unimaginable amounts of material now digitally stored. Sashi Kumar shows how even that most demotic of fields, the Indian commercial cinema, has both attracted and challenged audiences with villains-turned-heroes and retains a dialectical twist with heroes needing villains to whom they respond.
There is of course far more to the media than news and commercial cinema, and the author’s reflections on the contemporary visual arts illuminate and celebrate the complexity and difficulty of the arts. The young curators at the 2013 Kochi Biennale overcame withdrawals by leading artists to stage a brilliant exhibition, and there are other forms of courage in critical film; the director Ravi, asked about the acceptance that permeates his film Harijan, says, ‘This is an age of defeatism.’ Yet seeing that is what enables people like Edward Snowden, who receives more than a passing mention, to hand over vast amounts of classified material to the mass media because they do not want their countries to spy illegally on their own citizens; more specifically, they hand the material over to those sections of the media which take such illegality seriously. Sashi Kumar shows why we need to take the mass media seriously, and how we can do that.
UNMEDIATED — Essays on Media, Culture, Cinema: Sashi Kumar; Tulika Books, 35A/1 Shahpur Jat, New Delhi-100049. Rs. 895.